Updated: Nov 26, 2019
Each season has its drama—incredible excitement, precious moments, sometimes upsetting scenarios, but who can be calm when you see the first cubs of the season, or cubs in general?
Anticipating Spring Cubs
We all wait with great anticipation on the arrival of the first spring cubs of the season to Katmai and Hallo Bay. Wondering when and where they will appear is always exciting, and then anticlimactic when there aren’t any. Very seldom does the latter happen, but back in 2012, during the filming of the Disney Nature Bears movie on location in Hallo Bay, there weren’t any spring cubs. Unfortunately, this was primarily due to a very low salmon run in 2011. The Coastal Brown Bears rely on the arrival of abundant salmon to fatten up (oops! let me rephrase that—look healthy—by gaining a ginormous amount of weight to sustain them through a long hibernation). Females will not become pregnant unless they are healthy, and then can have between one and four cubs.
Sows with spring cubs are the last to show up in the meadows at Hallo Bay, and usually arrive by late June. Upon arrival, the cubs are very small, weighing approximately 20 pounds, and vulnerable to predation by large bores (male bears) and wolves.
For this season, momma introduces her fragile balls of fur to the overwhelming huge meadow on top of “Nurse Rock.” The outcropping is appropriately named because it is the best safe place for mommas to take their cubs. It has a very narrow ridge at the top that can be easily defended by the sow if they are pursued by a threat. They also go up on top to nurse or to take a relaxing nap in safety.
Our Journey Begins
After an incredible flight across Cook inlet and down the coast along the Shelikof Straight, we land at Hallo Bay. As we are making our approach for landing, we see numerous bears doing, of all things, bear stuff—so the anticipation of our adventure deepens. We deplane, anxiously gather our gear, and start out on a bear trail through the tall grass. We walk down the trail and cross through the meadow, looking for the ever-elusive 500-pound behemoth Coastal Brown Bear (it's crazy how they can disappear in the tall grass, depressions, and creek channels). We see multiple bears, a bore pursuing a sow, and a few subadults. We sit watching them at numerous locations enjoying a perfect day. After a couple of hours, we cross Middle Creek, where we see more bears and a couple sets of yearlings. The yearlings are eating and occasionally playing—what a sight to witness! It is that time when cubs should be showing up, so I keep gazing towards the back of the meadow, but we see nothing. It seems like another day without spring cubs. I think to myself, “Are there going to be any this year? It seemed like a good salmon run last year. All the bears were “healthy,” or are they just going to go to a different place. I keep watch all around us because, as we know, bear are silent, stealthy and can sneak up on you (I think they like to do that).
Will We See Any Cubs This Year?
My gaze again goes to the back of the meadow—still nothing. I think again, “Should we move to a different vantage point? There is a small rise towards the back that you can’t see over. Could cubs be there?” I decide we are in a great spot, and good grief, we have multiple bears around us. I continue my methodical scan of the meadow, looking at every distant brown dot (just logs and more logs), and then I look up on top of “Nurse Rock.” What is that? I see a brown spec that wasn’t there a few minutes ago. It is somewhat out of place, but I cannot make out a distinct shape as we are over 400 yards away. I keep an eye on it for several minutes to see if it moves. In the meantime, I am frantically trying to pull out my binoculars. They can’t come out fast enough. In my excitement, I fumble with the only strap holding them in my convenient carry case strategically positioned on my chest for easy and quick access (haha).
Finally, after what seems like an hour, I get them out and flip up the eye covers. I don’t see anything, just black. The other lens caps—I forgot to take those off. Good grief, what a show I am. I don’t want to alert our guests to the possibility of spring cubs unless I have a positive sighting. I finally get all four lens caps off and focus on the brown dot. Hmmmmm, where did it go? False alarm...? Wait—movement—I see movement. A big sow appears, coming out of the brush. She is beautifully highlighted against the sky. Okay, where are the little ones? Are there little ones, or is it just a lone sow? I turn to our guests and can’t resist telling them that there is a bear on top of the outcropping. Everyone strains to see what I see as binoculars are uncased and focused towards the rock.
Questions abound: “What are you looking at?” “Where is it?” “Can you tell me what you are looking at?” Yes, yes. Grinning, I explain mischievously: it’s on the rock, by the tree, next to the grass, next to the light spot (that is funny). After a few minutes of directing everyone to what I am looking at, and all eyes are focused on that spot, magic happens. A tiny little ball of fur, where you can only see the top of its head, appears. We all gasp, giggle, and smile as we take in what is happening in front of us. Hearts are pounding—you can feel the elation, the joy, the moment, the wild. Then if one spring cub wasn’t enough, another one appears just behind the first. This is the first time these cubs have set eyes on the meadow. To witness this incredible event is beyond words and emotions. Oh my gosh, look at that!—so tiny, gangly, and precious. She stops and looks out over her domain. You can actually sense what she is thinking (in bear language): “We have arrived, finally.” “You all better behave or I will turn us around and head back to the mountains, and I mean it.” Her cubs scurry behind her and then under her feet, looking out at the great expanse.
Introducing Her Cubs to Katmai's Great Meadows
She calmly sits and scans the meadows, making sure it is safe before venturing further. She chooses to slowly come down from her safe area to introduce her cubs to the great meadow, full of nourishing grasses, sedges, goose tongue, and clams out in the mud flats. This is where they will spend most of their summer, getting bigger, stronger, learning where and what to eat, playing, and surviving. She walks forward a little more towards the edge of the rocks, with cubs in tow, and then disappears. Well, if that is all we see then that is okay, and it is such a treat. Just to see spring cubs is an amazing moment, a memory not easily forgotten. We keep our eyes locked on Nurse Rock, and we aren’t disappointed as she reappears at the front with her two cubs by her side. She is very cautious as she sits and watches for any threat in the meadow. I turn to our guests again and we briefly, and I mean briefly, discuss our options. We will try to get a little bit closer, however, I explain that we will keep our distance, over 100 yards away, and if she appears skittish at all, then we will stop, even if we are 300 yards out. Everyone very quickly agrees, and we proceed to get a bit closer and enjoy watching momma show her cubs all the driftwood at the back of the meadow. The cubs are timid, but want to play and run, however, they never venture far from their momma. They explore new surrounding cautiously and run from almost every noise and shadow. We remain about 200 yards away from them and enjoy the remainder of our time in this incredible place called Katmai National Park.
Growing Up in Katmai
During rest of the season, our guests spend numerous days with momma and her precious cubs. We watch them play, chase, learn new things, nurse, get scared by spawning salmon, find their feet, and just be cubs. She becomes well-adjusted to our presence to the point that she has no problem bringing her cubs by to watch us. They continue to grow throughout the summer, and when we finally see them for the last time in late August, they are very healthy and weigh about forty pounds. Over the past few months, the cubs have learned almost everything they need to in order to survive, including where to go for food—fish are not scary but actually taste very good (good grief, they are salmon after all)—what to avoid, and soon where to go for hibernation. In a few years, they will be on their own, finding their way in the wild, making new lives for themselves and maybe even their cubs.